An eco-wacko figures a few things out

  The Gallatin National Forest, in southwestern Montana, recently ended a public comment period for revising its recreation plan, which, among other things, allocates trail use between motorized and non-motorized users.

The debate was marked by more editorial spleen-letting and rude outbursts than I've seen since Gay Pride marched in Bozeman, years ago. Remember, I live in a state where being an avowed environmentalist is edgy stuff. Our governor stops just shy of tucking environmentalists into the same bed with terrorists, and the letters pages of a paper in Bozeman have labeled people like me "eco-wackos."

I’ve noticed that the philosophical framework used by critics of eco-wackos consists of three planks. Each adapts to almost any anti-environmental diatribe:

I WAS HERE FIRST, SO NYAH, NYAH, NYAH. These letters always start, "I was born and raised in Montana . . ." so it's as if, by accident of birth, one is guaranteed immunity from the consequences of any action or point of view, no matter how crazed or half-baked.

A friend of mine was in a cab recently and got into a discussion. At some point the cabbie said, "Yeah, I think we ought to kick everybody out who came here after 1960, and burn their houses down as they leave!"

"I see where you're coming from," my friend said, "but why stop at 1960? What about1860? Or better yet,1760? Kick everyone out who came after1760 and burn their houses down!" It was a quiet ride the rest of the way to the airport.

THE BLACK HELICOPTERS ARE JUST OVER THE HORIZON: In this argument, environmental positions are fomented by shadowy forces fueled with money from unspecified deep pockets. The United Nations can't be far behind. Environmentalists living in Montana, Colorado or Wyoming are bound to be wealthy, elitist impostors recently arrived from California and suckling on a trust-fund teat.

One letter suggested that all non-motorized folk use the backcountry on weekdays, when the mechanized folks have to labor, and on the weekends the boonies would be the sanctuary of the blue-exhaust crowd. It's like the mythology of the post-Reagan legacy, which keeps harping on the need to cut fat from government, even as entire programs topple from fiscal malnutrition. Repeat a rumor often enough, and it becomes the public perception: Rich newcomers with a commie agenda are ruining all our back-40 fun.

I have a suggestion for the internal-combustion enthusiasts: Lighten up on the spend ethic. If you didn't have to support recreational habits with $50,000 worth of snow machines, dirt bikes, jet skis, trailers to pull them all, outfits to go with each vehicle and the 4 x 4 hog that gets 11 miles to the gallon, think how much time you'd have on your hands? Why, you could be out there on a Tuesday or Wednesday, rubbing elbows with all those slacker recreationists, some who lavish income on self-propelled toys from kayaks to backpacking gear and titanium mountain bicycles.

IT'S ONE BIG GLASS HOUSE: When the other arguments wane, this is the one anti-enviros inevitably fall back on. In the version told at Forest Service get-togethers, it went like this: If you drive a car, you're driving on what was once a wildlife trail, so stop whining about us driving in the wilderness, you hypocrite. If timber is the issue, and you live in a house with wooden walls or floors, you have no moral high ground. If it's mining and you use a computer, then knock it off.

Whenever someone suggests reasonable restraint by people in the backcountry or concepts such as sustainability, he or she is rudely shouted down. How dare you suggest limits -- you drive a car!

Well, it's all over now. We made our comments and some of us insulted each other. Letters in the paper are back to the usual kooks and a warmed-over debate on the location of a grocery store. The Forest Service says it got a truckload of strongly worded suggestions, and hardly any of it arrived as form letters or had postmarks from California. Agency staffers are staying pretty mum about the contents, but hey, they probably haven't gotten back from coffee break yet, those lazy government slackers!

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana.

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